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Lifetime Showrunners Talk #MeToo and Meaningful Change for Women

The #MeToo movement has the potential to not only expose the continuing scourge of sexual harassment but also to bring meaningful changes to the business landscape for women in Hollywood.

A group of five female showrunners working on Lifetime drama series parsed the impact of the revelations of the past few months and the long-term impact of women rising in prominence and power in the television industry. The women gathered Sunday afternoon as part of Lifetime’s portion of the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif.

“What I want at the end of this ‘Me Too’ moment is so much more than just a safe working environment,” said Stacy Rukeyser, showrunner of “Unreal,” the drama set behind the scenes of a “Bachelor”-eques reality series.

“What I want is to get our shows on the air,” she said. “I want to get rid of the assumption that female-created or (showrunners) are going to be quote-unquote soft. I also want to get rid of the insistence that female characters be likable, which makes them soft.”

Rukeyser, who wore a skirt emblazoned with the word “feminist.” noted the pervasive problem of employers believing that female showrunners are “too emotional” to handle a $30 million-plus budget on their own without a male counterpart. The national conversation sparked by #MeToo will hopefully have the lasting effect of making people challenge their assumptions and look at how women, even powerful women, are treated in the real world.

“This is the way we will change the gender politics in this country — create a greater understanding to get people into the hearts and minds of women,” Rukeyser said.

Sera Gamble, showrunner of the upcoming thriller “You,” noted that “unconscious bias is not limited to any one gender.” She sees an opportunity for people to do some soul-searching about workplace dynamics.

“It’s really the micro-aggressions — the small ways in which things are over-explained, the way credit is dispensed in the room. It’s the small slights that happen in un-evolved rooms that wears people down,” she said.

Gamble echoed Rukeyser’s point that the potential for more female-led programs from diverse perspectives can only be good for the entire industry, and for viewers. “We are all better off if there are more voices and more stories,” she said.

Jamie Denbo, creator and showrunner of the upcoming “American Princess,” said the seriousness and swiftness of the professional fallout from accusations publicly leveled at powerful figures ranging from Harvey Weinstein to Louis C.K. is likely to be significant over the long haul.

“The initiative is now coming from the top,” Denbo said. She pointed to a glaring example of sexism in which she was told at the age of 43 she was too old to play the wife of a 57-year-old. “Sexism is everywhere. Ageism is everywhere,” she said. The events of the past few months have likely helped many people realize its important to think before you speak, she added.

Tara Armstrong, showrunner of “Mary Kills People,” said the growing ranks of female showrunners is having a noticeable impact on the types of storylines and female archetypes that are on TV.

“When you’re a woman creating the story, you have control over what the female characters are putting out there,” she said. “For so much of the time (TV has been) presenting women in a position of being victimized in some way. Just to be able to control how female characters are empowered or have their own agency in ways that we haven’t seen that much in the past.”

(Pictured: Stacy Rukeyser, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, Tara Armstrong, Sera Gamble, and Jamie Denbo)

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